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Apr 5, 2012

It’s quills at ten paces as Australian Poetry director walks

It may not quite be Lord Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade but the recent ructions inside Australia's peak poetry body have left some literary insiders scratching their heads at how it has quite come to this.

It may not quite be Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade but the recent ructions inside Australia’s peak poetry body have left some literary insiders scratching their heads at how it has quite come to this.

Two weeks ago, in a long and passionate email, the Director of Australian Poetry Ltd, Paul Kooperman, hastily vacated his prized position, accusing board members of abandoning him after a long period of creative tension.

“I think it’s taken me a while to come to grips with the fact that the situation is beyond repair,” Kooperman wrote despairingly. The decision was “less a logistical one and more a philosophical one — about the difference in attitude, background, expectations and vision for the organisation by different staff and Board members from these two previous organisations.”

Kooperman accuses board members of breaching their directors duties by failing to act in the best interests of the organisation and reveals he has referred the alleged malfeasance to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and peak funding bodies the Australia Council and state-based arts quangos.

“Board Directors have acted with self interest in an attempt to control the organisation, placing pressure on the budget, programming, disempowering staff and operating (and making key decisions) without any due process in place,” he wrote.

Kooperman was immediately banned from Australian Poetry’s Wheeler Centre offices and issued with a formal cease and desist letter. His departure follows the sudden resignations of general manager Robert Lukins and publications manager Victoria Amy, who both downed quills amid an all-consuming factional war reminiscent of the Victorian branch of the ALP.

The organisation is now in limbo with new staff being brought on to salvage the ship and acquit a number of outstanding grants. A temporary director, Cathy Brown-Watt, has been appointed.

The split can be partly traced to the merger of the old school NSW-based Poets Union and the Melbourne-based Australian Poetry Centre in 2011. But Kooperman also says an apparent hostility to a straitened business-like approach left him hamstrung. Crikey understands that other points of contention included lukewarm support for poetry slam events and, according to one insider, “anything online”.

Australian Poetry’s flagship publication is its Australian Poetry Journal. This has subsumed the old Poetry Centre’s Blue Dog and the Poets Union’s Five Bells following the 2011 merger.

Crikey understands that Kooperman and Australian Poetry’s Treasurer, Marcus “Dr Business” Powe (also RMIT University’s Entrepreneur in Residence) formed a two man bloc dedicated to setting the organisation on a rigorous fiscal footing.

This chafed with the majority of the board, including scene veteran and chairman Chris Wallace-Crabbe, NSW-based secretary Anna Kerdjik Nicholson and respected published poets David Musgrave and Margaret Bradstock.

The final straw came after a tense staff review process:

“I have always been optimistic that things were going to improve, but at my staff review last week, and a meeting with the Chair and Treasurer more recently, it was clear nothing has changed and the Board seems less interested in negotiating a positive outcome and more interested in having things their own way.”

Australian Poetry issued the following statement this morning: “It’s regrettable that Paul Kooperman has taken this course of action on the basis of unfounded allegations against the board of Australian Poetry Limited…Australian Poetry Limited and its Board will continue to vigorously defend its position on this issue.”

Despite the rancour, it wasn’t all rainy days during Kooperman’s his 17 month reign, with the recent father of twins admitting that “he thoroughly enjoyed building new audiences for poetry and engaging Australians with the art form”. He also “loved working with the staff and also the Board at various times.”

Two days after the initial email, Kooperman sent a more formal follow-up. It was subject-lined “Bold and Beautiful”, to mark the TV debut of the daytime soap opera on March 23, 1987.

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7 thoughts on “It’s quills at ten paces as Australian Poetry director walks

  1. Holden Back

    I could write a sonnet, about your Easter bonnet . . . .

  2. Jackson Andy

    An official peak body for poetry in Australia will always be a damn hard ship to steer. I’m sure Paul, Victoria & Robert are enjoying their post-AP lives – good luck to whoever inherits their shoes!

  3. gonzalez luis

    It’s a shame that poetry in this country only gets major coverage when there’s a fight. I personally think that Paul, Robert and Victoria have done a hell of a job. Like Andy said, it weren’t ever going to be easy.

    Happily attendances at Melbourne poetry events have been on a definite upsurge recently and word from around the country is similarly positive.

    Steve Smart

  4. gonzalez luis

    Just to avoid confusion, I am not Luis Gonzalez. We’re just on the same Crikey account through the Overload Poetry Festival.


  5. koraly dimitriadis

    This is a very sad day for poetry. Paul is a very open minded and creative poet, happy to push boundaries and make poetry more accessible. I am guessing that the board are a bunch of academic poets. Why am i not suprised? Its just like the shift in the publication from blue dog which published a range of different styles of poetry to the ap journal which published mostly academic poetry. Hopefully the person that takes his place is as open minded to the different forms of poetry but i am sure the board wont be hiring anyone like that

  6. whitington luke

    i spoke to paul just before this surprise decision, about the growing view of the same old faces running everything their way and the serious disappointment nsw poets feel in the loss of our poetry centre in kings cross.

    if melbourne has the wheeler centre why do we have ours taken away.

    poets need hubs at least to meet. the online meeting lacks touch, taste and smell.

    the more it changes the more it stays the same,

  7. J J

    As a member of Poetry Australia, but a rather inactive one, who merely uses the organisation’s billboard to advertise the occasional gig, the whole imbroglio that has now blown up seems more a matter for regret than of serious concern.

    I have no connection with AP’s inner workings and personnel, so my ‘outsider’ view may bring a disinterested calm to the debate. It seems that all parties in this ‘conflict’ have been equally passionate in their commitment to poetry, and for PA’s promotion of the art in the wider community.

    Insiders have differed in their methods and priorities.

    A hugely experienced Board has tried to set the organisation on a solid foundation for the long-term, while pursuing a wider vision, including national and international links. While a younger generation is attracted by new media, its expectations shaped by the instant nature of digital culture, with all its seductive froth and bubble.

    Of course, a balance is possible, and I am sure will eventually be achieved, given a little patience and drawing on the overwhelming good will and support of PA’s diverse membership.